The story of Thanksgiving

Too often we sit down with our loved ones for our Thanksgiving feast without considering or appreciating its history and true meaning. We have been taught that the first Thanksgiving was in 1621 when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast and that the pilgrims celebrated it every year thereafter.

Although this feast is considered by many to the very first Thanksgiving celebration, it was actually in keeping with an English tradition of harvest festivals-which usually occurred around the 29th of September – celebrating the harvest and giving thanks for a successful bounty of crops.

The original feast in 1621 occurred sometime between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11, lasting three days. The Pilgrims did not call it Thanksgiving. To them, a thanksgiving was a religious holiday in which they would go to church and thank God for a specific event. On such a religious day, the types of recreational activities in which the pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians participated during the 1621 harvest feast would not have been allowed.

The Wampanoag Indians were not the “friendly savages” some of us were taught in grade school. They distrusted and feared the Pilgrims. Nor were they invited out of the goodness of the Pilgrims’ hearts to share the fruits of the Pilgrims’ harvest. The Wampanoag were actually invited to that Thanksgiving feast for the purpose of negotiating a treaty that would secure the lands of the Plymouth Plantation for the Pilgrims.

Days of thanksgiving were celebrated throughout the colonies after fall harvests. George Washington was the first president to declare the holiday, in 1789. In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom, and by the middle of the 19th century many other states had done the same. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed a day of thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November. President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the date for Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November in 1939.
Despite the many myths and misunderstandings about the origins of Thanksgiving, the common theme has always been to give thanks to God for his many blessings. Although we all face our own personal challenges, we should take this time to give thanks for the many blessings that have been bestowed upon each of us.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 26, 2008, Hattiesburg American. You may contact the author at